New research shows that the US’s global leadership role for spending on biomedical research and health service innovation is eroding, and that China’s spending in these areas is increasing dramatically.

Growth in US spending on biomedical research and health service innovation fell from 6% a year during 1994-2004 to 0.8% annually during 2004-12, says the research, produced by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

During 2004-12, total US research funding from both public and private sources declined from 57% to 44% of the global total, with US government research funding dropping from 57% to 50% of the global total and that of US companies falling from 50% to 41%. During the same period, spending in Asia increased from $1.6 billion to $14.6 billion, and  China’s expenditures tripled from $1.6 billion to $4.9 billion, with particularly strong investments in the science and technology workforce, says the study.

Industry accounted for 58% of US research funding in 2012, an increase in share from 46% in 1994, but it also shifted investment away from early-stage activity to late-phase clinical trials. Also, 2004-12 showed slower growth in spending than 1994-2004.

Although the US still has a strong lead in absolute terms, these recent trends indicate that US leadership is eroding, and some observers are speculating that China’s total investment could bypass US spending in the next decade, say the authors.

“We were struck by the fact that rather than doubling down on research during this golden age of biomedical science, US funding growth is declining and, in real terms, funding for early-stage research is falling,” said Sarah Cairns-Smith, a BCG senior partner and co-author of the study. 

“Given current trends, the US risks failing to reap the benefits of previous medical advances and relinquishing its historical international leadership in medical innovation,” she warned.

“The natural cycle is for funding in basic biology to crack open areas for therapeutic innovation. We’re seeing that now play through in areas such as HIV and cancer, but if we don’t fund other basic research sufficiently, our timeline for addressing highly debilitating diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia stretches out,” Dr Cairns-Smith added.

- The US share of patents, often cited as a key research-output metric, also declined from 73% to 59% of the most valuable patents from 1981 to 2012, the study shows.